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The Very Real Need for Low-Cost Housing

June 25, 1989

Orange County's affluence may explain the ranking, but it still seems ridiculous to identify families earning $40,000 to $60,000 a year as members of low-income households. Even more ridiculous is an official policy that is geared to provide subsidized housing for people in that bracket, with practically nothing for poorer people.

But that has been the case in Orange County in recent years. Fortunately, advocates for the homeless and the poor have been pressuring the county to adopt a more realistic program. Their efforts received an added push when the County Planning Commission, in reviewing the 1989 housing element of the General Plan, urged the addition of a "very low-income" category that would cover the significant number of county residents earning $25,000 a year or less.

Last Wednesday, the County Board of Supervisors officially adopted that category. But the board unwisely backed away from another commission recommendation to set a goal of building 1,207 homes and apartments in the next five years for those "very low-income" residents. A commitment to 1,207 homes is a very modest goal, considering that surveys by the Southern California Assn. of Governments place the need for living quarters for those residents at more than 3,000 units in the next five years.

Although the supervisors did move in the right direction, just having a more realistic income category is not enough. Along with other incentives, money to subsidize construction for the more affordable housing must also be made available. One way is with a special housing trust fund that the county board and city councils should be providing. Among possible revenue sources for such trust funds are fees from industrial and commercial builders and tenants.

Working with the private sector to provide housing for lower-income residents is sound public policy from an economic as well as a social standpoint. As the county's job market continues to grow, it creates more pressure for affordable housing. A solid homes-jobs balance must be maintained for good economic health. So it makes sense for those who help create the jobs to also help in creating housing for the new employees they attract. If they don't, residents priced out of the available housing will continue to move elsewhere, drying up the labor pool and adding to the county's traffic congestion and environmental decay. That could be far more costly than housing incentives and subsidies.

The county has finally recognized that families earning $25,000 a year or less are the ones that need the most help. The next step is actually providing it.

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